Rodeo cowboy a thrilling but dangerous, expensive career

Thursday , July 23, 2015 - 6:19 AM

So you want to be a professional rodeo cowboy, but you’re not sure what it takes — beyond wearing one of those paper numbers on the back of your stylish western shirt?

Well, for starters, it would probably help if, at the very least, you could rope a cow and/or ride a horse.

Beyond that, those in the know say rodeoing takes dedication and hard work. And a healthy dose of crazy. After all, climbing on the back of an unhappy bull — or jumping at the business end of a moving steer from the saddle of a speeding horse — isn’t something most city folk would define as sane.

Ask Clint Robinson. He knows. The Ogden native has been cowboying since he was 3 years old, and he admits it’s not an easy life.

“I’m too old to be doing this,” the tie-down roper — who sits in eighth place in the all-around world standings — recently said with a laugh.

He and his fellow rodeo pros are in the midst of “Cowboy Christmas,” that unofficial term for the month of July when lots of rodeos and lots of prize money are up for grabs. Calgary. Nampa. Salinas. Cheyenne. Salt Lake. Spanish Fork. And, of course, the Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo, running July 20-24.

“The month of July, you’re at a rodeo every day,” Robinson said.

And just for the record? The Methuselah-esque Robinson, who makes his home in Spanish Fork, just turned a mere 33 years old on July 16.

For Robinson and many of the other cowboys on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, rodeoing is in their blood.

“I grew up with it,” Robinson said. “My dad did it, and he taught me everything I know. He showed me how to do it the right way.”

That dad is steer wrestler/roper Lance Robinson, who was a regular qualifier at the National Finals Rodeo during the 1980s.

Jake Hannum, a professional calf roper, comes from similar cowboy stock. His father is Jack Hannum, legendary PRCA cowboy from West Haven, who died in September. Jake’s brother, Olin Hannum, is also a professional cowboy.

Jake Hannum, who lives in Plain City, said that between the physical demands of rodeo and the potential for injury, the sport can be particularly hard on the body. So it’s important to take care of oneself, he said. Hannum tries to eat well, and stay in shape.

“I’m not a big workout kind of guy, but some guys just sleep the morning away, and I can’t do that,” he said. “I think it’s all about getting up and moving around, and not getting sluggish and fat.”

Hannum said it’s also important to avoid injuries — or at least fight through them. Cowboys know the drill: “If you don’t compete, you don’t earn.”

Robinson said the good rodeo cowboys spend countless hours practicing their event.

“You figure out your craft in the pen, then make it pay in the arena,” he said.

Growing up, and throughout high school and college. Robinson said he was “running” 30 to 40 calves a day. For years.

“Now, it gets to a certain point where you don’t have to do that, but when I’m home, off the road, I try to run a few cattle, every day. You’ve got to do something every day, whether it’s work on a horse or whatever.”

And as physical as rodeo can be, Robinson said it’s even more mentally demanding.

“It’s the attitude,” Robinson said. “You’ve got to be able to take it every day; you’ve got to be mentally tough.”

In rodeo, so many variables are out of a cowboy’s control. You’re dealing with unpredictable animals, not to mention a hefty dose of chance when it comes to the stock you draw. You can’t let it get you down.

“You’ve got to be able to bounce back every day,” Robinson said.

Hannum has done a lot of bouncing in 2015.

“This is the worst year I’ve ever had,” Hannum said. “I’ve roped or done good this year, but I just haven’t won anything.”

Hannum said it’s just one of those years where nothing goes right.

“But that’s just part of it,” he said. “After this week, I’ll probably just do the local rodeos. I don’t have a realistic opportunity to make the finals this year, so I’m not going to give every dollar I have chasing after it.”

Still, Hannum said he loves the fact that while there are certain rules one has to follow in rodeo, “There are no bosses.”

“And, it’s pretty addicting,” he said.

Like most addictions, rodeoing isn’t cheap. So then, just exactly how much money does it take to be a professional cowboy? (Those of you considering taking up the sport will probably want to sit down for this next part.)

For guys in the timed events, like Robinson and Hannum, it all starts with a horse.

“The biggest thing you’ve got to have is a horse,” Hannum said. “You’ve got to have a good horse.”

And for that, you’ll pay anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000, although the really great horses will set you back six figures.

Then, of course, you’ll need something to transport that horse — you can’t just saddle up and ride from rodeo to rodeo. That would be a pickup truck — a reliable one — which is another $60,000.

“You’ve got to have a fairly new truck, so you can get to all the rodeos,” Hannum said. “If you’re broke down by the side of the road, you can’t get to your next paycheck.”

And, of course, you need a trailer for the horse. With, ideally, sleeping quarters for the cowboy, so you don’t have to spend valuable down time checking into a hotel. A nice combo living trailer like that is another $75,000, Hannum said.

And then there’s the cost of doing business — your annual PRCA card ($500) and the entry fee at each rodeo ($120 to $500, with an average entry fee of about $370 per event, according to Hannum).

Throw in food (for you and your horse), fuel, medical care (again, for rider and horse) and other incidentals, and you could be looking at spending much more than most people make in a year.

“It ain’t cheap at all,” Robinson explained. “It takes money, getting to the national finals.”

Ah, the National Finals Rodeo, or NFR. Held each December in Las Vegas, the top 15 money winners in each event qualify for what has been described as the “World Series of Rodeo.”

If, for example, it takes $65,000 in winnings to make the NFR in calf roping, Robinson said you’ll spend at least $50,000 of that money just getting there. Not a particularly impressive profit margin.

“Everything you make, in terms of profits, you make at the finals,” Robinson said. “You’ve got to make the finals as a cowboy; that’s your profits, right there.”

Hannum said rodeo has evolved over the years.

“When Dad rodeoed, you showed up in a Lincoln Town Car and a horse trailer, and slept in the car,” he said. “It used to be, you’d go to one rodeo and hang out all week, watching the other cowboys compete. You couldn’t afford to keep driving.”

Now, a cowboy competes at one rodeo, and is off almost immediately to the next rodeo.

Of course, there are other ways to make money as a cowboy. Some hold down day jobs, training horses and the like. And if you’ve got a great horse you can rent it to another cowboy, who may have just flown into town for the rodeo.

“Other cowboys will lease your horse,” Robinson said. “They pay you about a quarter of what they win to use it. So if you’ve got a good horse, you can make some good money there.”

And then there are the sponsorships. If you’re good enough, rodeo-oriented businesses will pay you to use their products, or wear their patches, or wrap your truck or trailer in their advertisements.

Jeff Haney, rodeo committee spokesman for Ogden’s Pioneer Days, joked that today’s professional cowboys have become “moving billboards.”

For example, Jake Hannum is sponsored by the western wear company Ariat. He’s been with the company — which provides him with products and a little spending money — since 2007.

“Heck, a pair of jeans can cost 80 bucks now, and they give me everything free,” Hannum said. “And shirts are $50 or more.”

Plus which, cowboys are notoriously hard on their duds.

“Ariat ends up giving me close to $10,000 a year in clothing and boots,” he said.

And there are even more sponsor incentives if Hannum makes the finals, or wins the world championship.

Robinson said sponsors have turned the sport of rodeo around. The best cowboy in the world could be making $500,000 or more in sponsorships.

“Rope companies give you ropes, truck companies give you trucks,” he said. “A lot of guys just couldn’t do it without sponsors. You couldn’t pay for the fuel and all without sponsors.”

And finally, the lifestyle of a rodeo cowboy can take its toll. Hannum said being a professional cowboy is a lot like being a carny.

“It’s a different town every day,” he said.

Hannum has a wife and three kids, so he steers clear of all the extracurricular activities. But he doesn’t deny it still exists in rodeo.

“Honestly, that’s the way it’s been from Day One — drinking whiskey, fighting and finding ladies,” he said. “It’s not everybody, and it’s slowed down a touch from what it used to be, but a lot of guys wear out their bodies pretty quick.”

And despite all that, Robinson said rodeo is still a good family sport.

“I’ve had a decent career,” he said. “Rodeo’s been good to me.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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